ON CONTESTED SHORES

March 11, 2022
Posted by: CHRIS O'FLAHERTY

There is a field in the conduct of war that can be properly covered only by Marines, and that is military operations connected with naval activities.” [MajGen B H Fuller USMC, 1931]

In a refreshing divergence from many modern books about amphibious warfare, this well balanced volume describes and analyses the history and key lessons from nearly 500 years of amphibious, littoral and Marines’ operations, decisively integrated with their naval compatriots.

Promising in the Preface to take the reader on a cognitive journey that will “help figure out how to regain and maintain the skills necessary for maritime [vice landlocked] operations” by marine forces, it starts with a priming reminder that amphibious warfare generally consists of five variations of mission: Assault; Raid; Demonstration; Withdrawal; and support to other operations.

The history lesson starts in June 1555, with a whole chapter devoted to the night assault and capture by Imperial Florentine forces of Porto Ercoletto, in Tuscany. The eloquent description highlights the detailed planning and meticulous embarkation preceding this successful attack, which included the offload on a rocky shore of supporting artillery. This amphibious operation unlocked an otherwise stalemated land campaign, although the combat identification tactic of the assault force wearing pristine white shirts or surcoats could even now be seen as a hazard to survival if faced by a disciplined defender who could aim straight.

The next chapter, on the 1574 siege of Leiden, highlights yet more novel amphibious tactics. In this case, the inundation of a land battlefield by destroying protective dykes to turn an unfavourable terrestrial battle into an amphibious operation for which only the attackers were properly prepared. The modern read-across to a side effect of climate change should not be missed.

A succession of chapters then draws out many more superb lessons from history, whilst crediting the under-rated maritime analyst Thomas More Molyneux as the father of amphibious doctrine. Many of these lessons are highlighted through operational analysis at the end of each historical chapter, which can then be drawn into today’s amphibious debates.  By way of exemplar, after a wonderfully detailed description of the successful littoral raids of the Estonian navy between 1917 and 1919, the book notes that:

“Lack of extensive [military] naval service was not necessarily a negative attribute as they [the Estonian merchant navy officers commanding the landing ships] were not bound to doctrine or procedures and could react more flexibly to the circumstance.  … [As] a model for the future, the operations were conducted mainly from improvised low-cost platforms disembarking relatively small numbers of troops to locations with significant operational effect.”

With amphibious raiding, otherwise referred to as guerre de razzaia, examined in more detail in a later chapter, those driving forward our Future Command Force can accordingly cite this as evidence that small-force landings, correctly targeted and from appropriate platforms, really can change the course of history.

The editors have done a superb job in compiling 23 expertly authored chapters (including one by Naval Review member Kevin Rowlands) which dissect the gamut of key issues affecting amphibious and littoral warfare. Their light-touch editing, including of chapters by various international authors, ensures retention of the literary personality of such contributors.

In many chapters the reader is vividly transported to vicious surf-zones and battlefields, as they uncover the forces, time and space considerations that dictated victory or defeat. In other chapters, the reader is deftly guided through the evolution of amphibious tactical thought either in the classrooms of Quantico, or in the think-tanks and warfare centres of littoral states. For the gunnery officer/PWO(A), there is even a dedicated chapter on Naval Gunfire Support (i.e. sea-based beach fire, support fire, indirect fire, and counterbattery fire) that uses the vicious 1943 USMC assault of Tarawa as its analytic baseline.

Overall, this volume should be seen as an excellent contribution to the doctrinal library of amphibious forces. Lest history could otherwise repeat itself with unfortunate consequences for the ignorant, it should be studied by all exponents and practitioners of littoral warfare who wear any shade of blue (light or dark), green or lovat.